John Briggs Books

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Banned Books and Other Ways to Eliminate Free Speech

As Banned Book Week draws to a close, I’ve reflecting on all the other ways we attempt to limit free speech. We’ve seen banned movies, banned art, blacklists, cancellations, and just about any way you can imagine to limit free speech – particularly that of underrepresented or powerless groups. I’ve been fascinated by this subject since about the age of ten, when I first read in a preface to Huck Finn that some libraries had banned the book.

Mark Twain’s response? “For every one they ban, we’ll sell a hundred, sure.”

There are two lessons in that: Money is the most surefire way to ensure free speech. If you have money, they’ll let you talk, from media ownership to Citizens United.

The other lesson is that we can do a lot more than sit back and collect royalties like Mark Twain. We can take action, whether by reading controversial books, seeking out controversial art, signing petitions, speaking out online or anywhere else when necessary, voting for candidates who support free speech, or even running for office ourselves. But preventing banned books and limited speech definitely requires action of some kind.

Two of my biographies—one published, one coming soon—are about people who took such action. There are lessons we can learn from them without going to their admirable extremes.

  1. Mary Dyer (Mary Dyer, Friend of Freedom) was an outspoken advocate in colonial America for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The Puritan leaders of Boston wanted to silence her so they banned her from Massachusetts, sent her to prison, and even staged a mock execution before actually hanging her. Yet, she refused to back down, and her death served as the spark that launched religious tolerance in this country. Her life is a story of abuse of power to quiet the opposition while maintaining an outspoken determination to fundamentally change the system.
  2. Pete Seeger (Pete Seeger, The People’s Singer – March, 2015) was an outspoken advocate for worker’s rights, and the powers that be tried to silence him, too, with physical abuse, prison time, and blacklisting. He was shut out of the major media, but he persevered, finding new audiences for his songs and new ways to reach the politicians who would listen to him. He probably lost more battles than he won, but the fact that he won at all given the odds against him is a testament to his dedication and vision.

So, please celebrate Banned Book Week by reading a once-banned book, or reading about people like Mary Dyer who fought hard to guarantee our freedom to do so. And if nothing else, participate, even in little ways, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

In the words of Mary Dyer:

My Life Not Availeth Me MEME

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